As we have imagined the future, we have been stuck in the past. An idea traced in science fiction and fantasy since the beginning of the last century remains lodged as a consistent marker of "future time." When the future comes, pop culture has confirmed, we will have flying cars.
But the future is always in the future, and therefore out of reach. So, too, are flying cars as a standard mode of transportation, trapped in our shared futural fantasies despite a century of science fictional promises. The days are dwindling until 2015 comes around, dashing residual hopes that the future of Back to The Future II will come true — at least when it comes to flying cars and hoverboards.
Yet this month may have injected new life into those dying hopes. After a working hoverboard prototype was unveiled last week — it's totally impractical and really just a showcase for technology that could protect buildings during earthquakes — this week a start-up in Slovakia revealed what it claims is the "world's most advanced flying car."
The AeroMobil 3.0 is a car with a 100-horsepower, four-cylinder Rotax engine that — according to the below promotional video — flies. But the existence of technological capabilities is one thing. The integration of a type of technological advancement into society is quite another. The political, social, and economic forces that determine which technologies become parts of the apparatus of daily living remain such that, even with the realization of a functioning prototype, flying cars — flying car societies — remain the stuff of retro-futuristic fantasy.
The AeroMobil may well be the most advanced flying car, and the closest aligned to popular conceptions of what a flying car should be. But to think this heralds a new era of transport ignores the very reasons that, instead of developing flying cars, technological advancements of the last century have followed the fault lines of mass networked communications and mass transport instead of more elaborate and exciting personal transport. It doesn't take complex economic understanding to see that it's more profitable to lay miles of fiber optic cable than it is to invest in flying car R&D.
Still, it's little wonder that the futurologists of the industrial age saw personal transport and aviation as the prime vector of innovation — that was the shape of technological advancement then. Interest in flying cars now thus presents as almost steampunk-like nostalgia, grasping for a future that capital never brought to fruition. The creators of the AeroMobil reveal as much when they talk about their flying car's origin: Chief designer Stefan Klein started designing prototypes with his father in Czechoslovakia 25 years ago, conceiving aerial freedom as an escape from Communist border restrictions.
"In the Czechoslovakia, we got very good training as pilots, but we didn't have the freedom to go anywhere," Klein told the Guardian. "Nowadays I can use an app to check in my flight on the way to the airfield and I'm in Croatia in 10 minutes. For me the freedom to move is really in the DNA of this project."
But late techno-capitalism places more stock in the movement of goods and information. People, meanwhile, can increasingly operate in the world from one spot, plugged in to online flows, sidestepping all the complicated bureaucracy that regulating the skies for flying cars would require. The global auto industry has proven resilient in recent years, but it's far from booming, and aerial autos will not be the answer. Indeed, as the Atlantic reported this week, Millennials aren't buying cars, flying or otherwise: "In 2010, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985."
Of course, not all technological progress of the last decades has been about networked communications; there have been significant developments in travel and transport. Drone technology and the very idea of unmanned vehicles presented a paradigm shift in assumptions of how vehicles can be used and for what purposes. But drones are part of a very different developmental lineage compared to the flying car, following the well-worn rite of passage from military application, to domestic law enforcement, and now, ever increasingly, to a multitude of personal and business uses. Drone technology has reshaped the very shape of international warfare. The flying DeLorean has not.
Thus, the flying car prototype is an impressive innovation and a pleasing manifestation of more than a century of futuristic fantasy. But the age of the personal vehicle as a primary site of progressive innovation is long gone. But let's keep our fingers crossed for a hoverboard.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
Photo via Wikimedia